From University Park to South Korea: Dupont maximizes undergrad experience

For the majority of college students, freshman year is mostly about getting adjusted to campus life, taking required courses, and exploring interests. However, for Jules Dupont, who will be a sophomore at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) in the fall, the highlight of his freshman year was traveling to Seoul, South Korea, to present research on social network deviance at an international conference. Rather than simply meeting the requirements of his major, he is seeking to gain the maximum benefit from his Penn State education by immersing himself in high-level research.

“I wanted to take full advantage of everything at Penn State,” he said. “It’s a huge research university; I wanted to be part of that kind of effort.”

Dupont, who is from Paoli, Pa., has been assisting Anna Squicciarini, assistant professor in the College of IST, with a research project that focuses on abusive behavior in social networks. Towards the end of the fall 2013 semester, Squicciarini submitted a proposal describing the project to the 23rd International World Wide Web Conference (WWW 2014), which was held April 7-11, 2014 in Seoul, South Korea. The World Wide Web Conference is an annual international conference on the topics of the future direction of the World Wide Web.

“To our great delight, our demo was accepted,” Dupont said. “In early April, Dr. Squicciarini and I traveled to Seoul, where I presented the demo to other conference attendees.”

Dupont’s involvement in faculty research at the College of IST is an example of the type of engaged scholarship that Penn State is trying to elevate in undergraduate education. Engaged scholarship, which encompasses a wide variety of out-of-classroom academic learning experiences that complement in-classroom learning, is recognized as an important component for student success, both while earning a degree and after graduation. Penn State held its inaugural Engaged Scholarship Symposium on March 25 at the Nittany Lion Inn. At the symposium, attendees had the opportunity to learn more about engaged scholarship and how it enriches student learning.

“For the students, (undergraduate research) it opens up a new perspective on what doing academic work means,” Squicciarini said.

While many undergraduate students do not even consider the possibility of undertaking research outside of the classroom, it was at the top of Dupont’s agenda since enrolling in the College of IST. At the beginning of his freshman year, he said, he asked his adviser, Lisa Lenze, director of undergraduate academic affairs for the college, about the possibility of doing undergraduate research. She put Dupont in touch with Squicciarini, who was working on a project that focused on abusive behavior in social networks, and Dupont signed on.

“Malicious, abusive or otherwise inappropriate behavior is a huge problem in a variety of online forums,” he said. “The New York Times, for example, maintains a comment section around its online articles. However, due to problems with comment content, the newspaper must pay a human moderator to proofread each and every comment prior to online display. Human moderation is both costly and slow, neither of which are big selling points.”

When Dupont joined the project, he said, there was already a structure in place that he could build on. Ruyan Chen, who was then an undergraduate student who spent the summer of 2013 at the College of IST working with Squicciarini, devised a three-part algorithm for identifying abusive behavior online. After implementing her algorithm, Dupont created a set of animated visualizations that traced the growth of problematic behavior throughout an online community.

“The idea of our project is to identify the comments (in an online forum) that are likely to be abusive or likely to be safe to replace the human moderator so comments can be posted in real time,” Dupont said.

“Jules started writing code, and then he actually exceeded my expectations,” Squicciarini said.

The visualizations that Dupont constructed, she said, illustrate the interactions between users of an online forum, and deviant activity such as propaganda and incendiary comments. Through her research, she found that controversial topics such as politics and religion are most likely to trigger abusive behavior.

“That’s where sometimes a network can quickly decay,” Squicciarini said.

While creating the animated visualizations of online network deviance may have been challenging for Dupont, presenting his work at the WWW2014 conference turned out to be a hugely beneficial learning experience. He said he was surprised at the amount of discussion sparked by the project, although on the whole it was well received.

“The feedback you get at a conference is much more intense than what you would receive in the classroom or in other settings,” he said.

However, he added, constructive criticism from other researchers “definitely helps with weeding out bad ideas.”

The trip to Seoul for the WWW2014 conference was an “exceptional opportunity” in several ways, Dupont said. He was able to attend presentations on a variety of topics and met “several prominent individuals, including a few Penn State alumni who now work at Microsoft Labs.”

“On a personal level, the trip was also fantastic,” he said. “I had never been to Asia, so staying in Seoul gave me the opportunity to see a vastly different culture.”

Although the abusive online behavior project has concluded, Dupont’s research work -- as well as his partnership with Squicciarini -- is ongoing. He was awarded a 2014 Undergraduate Summer Discovery Grant, which the Office of Undergraduate Education established to give undergraduate students the opportunity to work with faculty who are on the cutting edge of research and creative endeavors. He will use that grant for a project with Squicciarini that examines Bitcoin – a consensus network created in 2009 that enables a new payment system and a completely digital money. Bitcoin was introduced as open-source software in 2009 by developer Satoshi Nakamoto. The payments in the system are recorded in a public ledger using its own unit of account, which is also called bitcoin. Since all bitcoin transactions are available online, Dupont said, it presented an opportunity to investigate issues surrounding the technology.

“I thought that we would explore that kind of data to find patterns or interesting activity, particularly with regard to abusive or illegal behaviors that are widely advertised with that kind of technology,” he said.

Dupont’s decision to pursue undergraduate research, he said, has enabled him to push beyond his comfort zone and reach for what may have once seemed unattainable.

“I would never have imagined that I would go to South Korea in my freshman year at Penn State and present a paper to people from other universities throughout the world,” he said. “Ultimately, I accomplished a lot more than I thought would be possible.”

Last Updated June 30, 2014